Cats and coronavirus: Is my pet at risk of COVID-19?
The UK has confirmed that a cat has caught the virus from its owners. Here's what is currently known about the transmission between humans and animals.
The UK has its first confirmed case of coronavirus in a pet cat, announced 27 July.
The cat caught COVID-19 from its owners, who tested positive for the virus, and all of them have since gone on to make full recoveries.
According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the pet cat was first diagnosed with feline herpes virus, a common cat respiratory infection, by a private vet.
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The cat was then tested for SARS-CoV-2 as part of a research programme and it has since been confirmed the cat was co-infected with the virus known to cause COVID-19 in humans.
What is currently known about the spread of the virus between humans and their pets?
Can cats pass COVID-19 on to humans?
There is currently no evidence that pets or other domestic animals are able to transmit the virus to people.
Professor James Wood, head of department of veterinary medicine, University of Cambridge, said: “A handful of pets in contact with infected human owners have been found to be infected around the world.
“The data overall continue to suggest that cats may become infected by their owners if their owners have COVID-19, but there is no suggestion that they may transmit it to owners.”
Why can’t cats transmit the virus to humans?
The relative size of a cat versus a human means that there is far less exhaled breath from one cat in a house, compared with the exhaled breath volumes from a human patient.
It is also thought that the grooming behaviour of cats means that they are more likely to catch infection from an owner than vice versa.
It’s worth noting that the vast majority of pets tested which have been living with infected people have in fact tested negative, suggesting it might be quite hard for cats and dogs to catch this virus
Jonathan Ball, professor of molecular virology, University of Nottingham, said: “We know that domestic animals like cats and dogs can be infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, but the evidence suggests that the animals don’t get sick.
“They produce very low levels of virus, which is why we don’t think they can transmit the virus to humans.”
What can owners do if they are worried about passing the virus on to their pet cat?
Public Health England advises that people wash their hands regularly, including before and after contact with their pets.
Experts also say that people can protect their pets by avoiding close contact if they are, or think they might be, infected with the virus.
Daniella Dos Santos, president of the British Veterinary Association, said: “We also recommend that owners who are confirmed or suspected to have COVID-19 should keep their cat indoors if possible, but only if the cat is happy to be kept indoors.
“Some cats cannot stay indoors due to stress-related medical reasons.”
“It is also the case that animals may act as carriers of infection, called fomites, as the virus could be on their fur in the same way it is on other surfaces, such as tables and doorknobs.
“That’s why good hand hygiene remains important.”
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Cats Protection advised: “As a precaution, to avoid any risks to the cat, people who are suspected of having, or known to have COVID-19 should be particularly careful by minimising contact with their cat and washing their hands with soap and hot water before and after handling.”
As for how the cat could have caught the virus, Dr Jenny Stavisky, a professor at the school of veterinary medicine and science in the University of Nottingham, said it’s likely the cat caught it the same way we do, from close contact [with] an infected person or people.
“It’s worth noting that the vast majority of pets tested which have been living with infected people have in fact tested negative,” said Stavisky, “suggesting it might be quite hard for cats and dogs to catch this virus.”
What about other animals?
The UK case has been reported to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) in line with international commitments.
There have been a very small number of confirmed cases in pets in other countries in Europe, North America and Asia.
According to OIE, cats (domestic and large cats), mink, and dogs have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 in the field setting, following contact with humans known or suspected to be infected with SARS-CoV-2.
In the field setting cats have shown clinical signs of disease including respiratory and gastro-intestinal signs.
In April a tiger tested positive for the virus at a zoo in the US.
Although several animal species have been infected with the virus, these infections are not a driver of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic is driven by human-to-human transmission.
How can I protect myself from the coronavirus when shopping?
You’ll have seen signs in your local supermarket advising you to keep two metres from others while moving around the store. This is key to reducing your chances of catching the virus while shopping.
The coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 is spread through respiratory droplets that leave our mouth and nose when we cough, sneeze, or sometimes even talk. The droplets sprayed out by an infected person will contain the virus, which could then enter your body via your mouth, nose or eyes (this is why you shouldn’t be touching your face).
Respiratory droplets don’t usually travel more than one metre, so by keeping two metres from others, you’ll reduce the likelihood of being in the firing line. To make it easier to keep your distance, try to shop during off-peak hours, choose a store that’s limiting the number of people who can be inside at any one time, and use self-checkout if you can.
Keeping your hands clean is the other main thing you can do. If possible, wipe the trolley or basket handles with a disinfectant wipe when you arrive at the store. When you get home, wash your hands or use hand sanitiser before and after unpacking your bags.
A US study found that the coronavirus can survive for up to 24 hours on cardboard, and up to three days on hard, shiny surfaces such as plastic, so wiping down your purchases with a disinfectant spray or a soapy cloth before you put them away is another good habit to get into.
Amy is the Editorial Assistant at BBC Science Focus. Her BA degree specialised in science publishing and she has been working as a journalist since graduating in 2018. In 2020, Amy was named Editorial Assistant of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors. She looks after all things books, culture and media. Her interests range from natural history and wildlife, to women in STEM and accessibility tech.
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